Tag Archives: Greg Grandin

Capitalism and Slavery

1 Aug

I’ve mentioned Greg Grandin’s book Empire of Necessity on this blog before. It’s basically the true story—and more!—behind Melville’s Benito Cereno, which if you haven’t read, you should read right away. And then read Greg’s book. In any event, Alex Gourevitch has a wonderful interview with Greg up today at Jacobin. It’s got all sorts of gems in it, but I thought readers here would be especially interested in this:

Scholars have long examined the ways in which slavery underwrites capitalism. I thought this story, though, allowed attention to slavery’s role in shaping not so much the social or financial dimensions of capitalism but its psychic and imaginative ones.

Capitalism is, among other things, a massive process of ego formation, the creation of modern selves, the illusion of individual autonomy, the cultivation of distinction and preference, the idea that individuals had their own moral conscience, based on individual reason and virtue. The wealth created by slavery generalized these ideals, allowing more and more people, mostly men, to imagine themselves as autonomous and integral beings, with inherent rights and self-interests not subject to the jurisdiction of others. Slavery was central to this process not just for the wealth the system created but because slaves were physical and emotional examples of what free men were not.

But there is more. That process of individuation creates a schism between inner and outer, in which self-interest, self-cultivation, and personal moral authority drive a wedge between seeming and being. Hence you have the emergence of metaphysicians like Melville, Emerson, and of course Marx, along with others, trying to figure out the relationship between depth and surface.

What I try to do in the book is demonstrate the centrality of slavery to this process, the way “free trade in blacks” takes slavery’s foundational deception, its original deceit as captured in the con the West Africans were able to play on Amasa Delano, and acts as a force multiplier. Capitalism disperses that deception into every aspect of modern life.

There’s many ways this happens. Deceit, through contraband, is absolutely key to the expansion of slavery in South America. When historians talk about the Atlantic market revolution, they are talking about capitalism. And when they are talking about capitalism, they are talking about slavery. And when they are talking about slavery, they are talking about corruption and crime. Not in a moral sense, in that the slave system was a crime against humanity. That it was. But it was also a crime in a technical sense: probably as many enslaved Africans came into South America as contraband, to avoid taxes and other lingering restrictions, as legally.

Sometimes slaves were the contraband. At other times, they were cover for the real contraband, luxury items being smuggled in from France or Great Britain, which helped cultivate the personal taste of South America’s expanding gentry class. And since one of the things capitalism is at its essence is an ongoing process to define the arbitrary line that separates “self-interest” from “corruption,” slavery was essential in creating the normative categories associated with modern society.

Queering the Strike

1 May

In The Empire of Necessity, Greg Grandin gives us a fascinating history of the phrase “to strike.” Seems like a good story for May Day.

The phrase to strike to refer to a labor stoppage comes from maritime history and is an example of how revolutionary times can redefine a word to mean its exact opposite. Through the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth century, to strike was used as a metaphor for submission, referring to the practice of captured ships dropping, or striking, their sails to their conquerors and of subordinate ships doing the same to salute their superiors. “Now Margaret / must strike her sail,” wrote William Shakespeare in Henry VI, describing an invitation extended by the “Mighty King” of France to Margaret, the weaker Queen of England, to join him at the dinner table “and learn a while to serve / where kings command.” Or as this 1712 account of a British privateer taking a Spanish man-o’war off the coast of Peru put it: “fir’d two shot over her, and then she struck,” and bowed “down to us.” But in 1768, London sailors turned the term inside out. Joining city artisans and tradesmen—weavers, hatters, sawyers, glass-grinders, and coal heavers—in the fight for better wages, they struck their sails and paralyzed the city’s commerce. They “unmanned or otherwise prevented from sailing every ship in the Thames.” From this point forward, strike meant the refusal of submission.

Not unlike how gays and lesbians owned the word “queer.”

On the death of Gabriel García Marquez

23 Apr

Greg Grandin writes in The Nation:

Born in 1927, Gabriel García Márquez was 87 when he died last week. According to his younger brother, Jaime, he had been suffering from complications caused by chemotherapy, which saved his life but accelerated his dementia, a disease that apparently ran in his family. He’d call his brother and ask to be reminded about simple things. “He has problems with his memory,” Jaime reported a few years back.

Remembering and forgetting are García Márquez’s great themes, so it would be easy to read meaning into his senility. The writer was fading into his own solitude, suffering the same fate he assigned to the inhabitants of his fictional town of Macondo, in his most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Struck by an insomnia plague, “sinking irrevocably into the quicksand of forgetfulness,” they had to make signs telling themselves what to remember. “This is a cow. She must be milked.” “God exists.”

The climax of One Hundred Years of Solitude is famously based on a true historical event that took place shortly after García Márquez’s birth: in 1928, in the Magdalena banana zone on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, not far from where the author was born, the Colombian military opened fire on striking United Fruit Company plantation workers, killing an unknown number. In the novel, García Márquez uses this event to capture the profane fury of modern capital, so powerful it not only can dispossess land and command soldiers but control the weather. After the killing, the company’s US administrator, “Mr. Brown,” summons up an interminable whirlwind that washes away not only Macondo but any recollection of the massacre. The storm propels the reader forward toward the novel’s famous last line, where the last descendant of the Buendía family finds himself in a room reading a gypsy prophesy: everything he knew and loved would be “wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men…because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

It’s a powerful parable of imperialism. But the real wonder of the book is not the way it represented the past, including Colombia’s long history of violent civil war, but how it predicted the future.

One Hundred Years of Solitude first appeared in Spanish in Buenos Aires in May 1967, a moment when it was not at all clear that the forces of oblivion had the upper hand. That year, the Brazilian Paulo Freire, in exile in Chile and working with that country’s agrarian reform, published his first book, Education as the Practice of Freedom, which kicked off a revolution in pedagogy that shook Latin America’s top-down, learn-by-rote-memorization school system to its core. The armed and unarmed New Left, in Latin America and elsewhere, seemed to be in ascendance. In Chile, the Popular Unity coalition would soon elect Salvador Allende president. In Argentina, radical Peronists were on the march. Even in military-controlled Brazil, there was a thaw. Che in Bolivia still had a few months left.

In other words, the doom forecast in One Hundred Years was not at all foregone. But within just a few years of the novel’s publication, the tide, with Washington’s encouragement and Henry Kissinger’s blessing, turned. By the end of the 1970s, military regimes ruled the continent and Operation Condor was running a transnational assassination campaign. Then, in the 1980s in Central America, Washington would support genocide in Guatemala, death squads in El Salvador and homicidal “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua.

Political violence was not new to Latin America, but these counterinsurgent states executed a different kind of repression. The terror was aimed at eliminating not just opponents but also alternatives, targeting the kind of social-democratic solidarity and humanism that powered the postwar Latin American left. Hundreds of thousands of people were disappeared and an equal number tortured. Hundreds of communities were, like Macondo, wiped off the face of the earth.

It is this feverish, ideological repression, meant to instill collective amnesia, that García Márquez so uncannily anticipates in One Hundred Years. “There must have been three thousand of them,” says the novel’s lone survivor of the banana massacre, referring to the murdered strikers. “There haven’t been any dead here,” he’s told.

A year and a half after García Márquez published that dialogue, a witness to the October 2, 1968, Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City cried, “Look at the blood… there was a massacre here!” To which a soldier replied, “Oh lady, it is obvious that you don’t know what blood is.” Hundreds of student protesters were killed or wounded that day by the Mexican military, though for years the government denied the extent of the slaughter. Even the torrential downpour in One Hundred Years is replicated at Tlatelolco: as Mexican tanks rolled in to seal off the exit streets, one witness recalls that “the drizzle turned into a storm…and I thought that now we are not going to hear the shooting.”

As a young writer, García Márquez felt constrained by the two genre options available to him: either florid, overly symbolic modernism or quaint folklorism. But Gaitán offered an alternative. Upon hearing that speech, García Márquez “understood all at once that he had gone beyond the Spanish country and was inventing a lingua franca for everyone.” García Márquez describes the style as a distinctly Latin American vernacular that, by focusing on his country’s worsening repression and rural poverty, opened a “breach” in the arid discourse of liberalism, conservatism and even Marxism.

García Márquez flung himself through that breach, developing a voice that, when fully realized in One Hundred Years, took dependency theory (a social-science argument associated with the Latin American left that held that the prosperity of the First World depended on the impoverishment of the Third) and turned it into an art form.

If Castro is autumn’s patriarch, Allende is the democratic lost in history’s labyrinth. Drawing on his by then finely tuned sense of historical existentialism, García Márquez presents Allende as a fully realized Sartrean anti-hero, alone in the presidential palace, “aged, tense and full of gloomy premonitions.” The Chilean embodied and confronted an “irreversible dialectic”: Allende’s life proved that democracy and socialism were not only compatible but that the fulfillment of the former depended on the achievement of the latter. Over the course of his political career, he was able to work though democratic institutions to lessen the misery of a majority of Chileans, bringing them into the political system, which in turn made the system more inclusive and participatory. But his life, or, rather, his death, also proved the opposite: democracy and socialism were incompatible, because those who are threatened by socialism used democratic freedoms—subverting the press, corrupting opposition parties and unions, and inflaming the military—to destroy democracy.

Read it all here, at The Nation, and then make sure to buy Grandin’s latest book The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World—the true story behind Melville’s Benito Cereno. That old cliché about truth being stranger than fiction? There’s a reason it’s a cliché…

From the Annals of Imperial Assymetry: Greg Grandin on the Venezuelan Election

17 Apr

Latin American historian Greg Grandin is a longtime friend of the blog. He’s been one of the main voices of wisdom and sanity on Venezuela over the years, whether in The Nation, or on Charlie Rose or Up With Chris Hayes (transcript here). This morning on FB he made a quick comment on the Venezuelan election, which I’m reproducing here with his permission.

• • • • •

On November 2, 2004, George W. Bush beat John Kerry 50.7 percent to 48.3 percent. Venezuela’s foreign minister immediately (either that night or the day after) recognized the results: “we will hope that in this second mandate we can improve our relations.”

Fast forward nine years, and Nicolás Maduro beats Henrique Capriles with 50.7% of the vote and the US refuses to recognize the result. “Look, we’re just not there yet,” said a State Department spokesman (who now works for—wait for it— John Kerry). “Obviously, we have nearly half the country that had a different view. And so we’ll continue to consult, but we’re not there yet.” [Leading Nathan Newman to quip on FB: "Maybe Kerry thought Venezuela jumped the gun back then, and this is pay back."]

Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and other Latin American countries have recognized the results, but Washington’s refusal gooses the opposition, who have ransacked and burned government buildings. There have been up to seven deaths. If anyone has any doubts about the flimsiness of Capriles’ claim that he was robbed, read this post by Francisco Toro, who is as antichavista as they come.

Libertarianism in Honduras

13 Oct

My friend Greg Grandin writes on Facebook:

One of the stranger fallouts from the 2009 Honduran coup has been the scheme hatched by an NYU economist, Paul Romer, along with free-market libertarians—including Milton Friedman’s grandson, Patri; you can’t make this shit up—to start a bunch of “year-zero” cities in the country, free-market utopias with their own laws, etc. It’s like Empire’s Workshop meets The Shock Doctrine meets Fordlandia (except Henry Ford at least had his year-zero city provide free health care). If they were to come to fruition, they would be little more than free-trade maquila zones, like the kind that run along the US-Mexican border, except more savage.

In any case, the plan has hit a snag in that a committee of the Honduran Supreme Court has declared them unconstitutional, though that ruling could be reversed by the full court. Recently, a lawyer who argued for their unconstitutionality was gunned down, joining the long list of decent people killed as a result of the US-endorsed coup.

By the way, related to the discussion Corey Robin had on his blog about whether Hayek’s and Friedman’s support for dictatorships were inherent to their thought or just situational, Patri Friedman has cleared that point up, saying, in relation to these kind of start-up cities, that “Democracy is the current industry standard political system, but unfortunately it is ill-suited for a libertarian state.” Peter Thiel, founder of Paypall and bankroller of FB and another supporter of the Honduran scheme, wrote: “Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Glad that particular contradiction has gotten resolved. Adelante.

When Hayek Met Pinochet

18 Jul

 

In case you missed my five-part series on Hayek in Chile, here are the links:

  1. Hayek von Pinochet: In which we learn what our protagonist had to say about one of history’s tyrants.
  2. But wait, there’s more: Hayek von Pinochet, Part 2: In which we learn what our protagonist had to say about South Africa and what Ludwig von Mises had to say about fascism.
  3. Friedrich del Mar: In which we ask the question: Did Hayek make the decision to convene a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Viña del Mar?
  4. The Road to Viña del Mar: In which we answer the question: Did Hayek make the decision to convene a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Viña del Mar?
  5. Viña del Mar: A Veritable International of the Free-Market Counterrevolution: In which we learn what Hayek’s associates had to say about Pinochet’s Chile and its lessons for Reagan’s America.

Or, as the song says:

When an irresistible force such as you
Meets and old immovable object like me
You can bet as sure as you live
Something’s gotta give, something’s gotta give,
Something’s gotta give.

When an irrepressible smile such as yours
Warms an old implacable heart such as mine
Don’t say no because I insist.
Somewhere, somehow,
Someone’s gonna be kissed.

So en garde who knows what the fates have in store
From their vast mysterious sky?
I’ll try hard ignoring those lips I adore
But how long can anyone try?

Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight it with all of our might,
Chances are some heavenly star spangled night
We’ll find out as sure as we live
Something’s gotta give, something’s gotta give,
Something’s gotta give.

Postscript: Jesse Walker, an editor at Reason, is one of the few libertarians to grapple with some of this material. Have a read. And, in case you missed it, here’s Greg Grandin on Allende, explaining what the right thought was so dangerous about the democratically elected Marxist president of Chile.

Friedrich Del Mar*: More on Hayek, Pinochet, and Chile

11 Jul

In my first post about Hayek and Pinochet, I quoted a statement that I had written in the Nation in 2009 and had repeated in my book The Reactionary Mind:

Hayek admired Pinochet’s Chile so much that he decided to hold a meeting of his Mont Pelerin Society in Viña del Mar, the seaside resort where the coup against Allende was planned.

The Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) was a group of intellectuals and activists that Hayek helped found after World War II to advance the cause of the free market. In recent years, it has become the subject of some great new scholarship; judging by the fall catalogs it looks likely to be an even hotter topic in the future. Hayek was president of the MPS from 1947 to 1961 and honorary president after that.

I had learned about the meeting in Viña—and Hayek’s role therein—from Naomi Klein and Greg Grandin.

Once my Hayek von Pinochet post came out, a Hayek enthusiast began questioning—among other things—my claim about Hayek’s role in the Viña meeting on Twitter.

Truth is: this was the first time I had heard anyone question the claim about Hayek and Viña, but I decided to follow it up.

I emailed a past president of the MPS, who informed me that a regional meeting such as this one would have been proposed by local members of the Society to the Board, which would have had to have given its approval. My informant wasn’t sure if Hayek was on the board in 1981—honorary presidents, he said, weren’t usually on the board—and he also told me that the Chileans to whom I might pose some questions were “not around.”

So far, so nothing. I emailed a few scholars about the meeting, but didn’t hear back from them.

Then I stumbled across this 1979 letter from Hayek to Joaquin Reig, an MPS regular from Spain who wanted to organize a regional meeting in Madrid. In the letter, Hayek makes plain his preferences for the meeting’s location:

I believe I mentioned to you that I would rather like to have the meeting take place at Salamanca, but that may be, as you pointed out, impracticable. But I want still strongly to urge that we have there a one day public meeting entirely devoted to “The Spanish Origins of Economic Liberalism!”

For several years, Hayek had been growing increasingly excited about the possibility that “the basic principles of the theory of the competitive market were worked out by the Spanish scholastics of the 16th century.” For reasons still obscure to me, he seemed positively ecstatic about the notion that “economic liberalism was not designed by the Calvinists but by the Spanish jesuits.” (In his History of Economic Analysis, Schumpeter also had argued “that the very high level of Spanish sixteenth-century economics was due chiefly to the scholastic contributions.” But it didn’t seem to transport him in the way it did Hayek.)

Hayek insisted that the conference be shipped for a day 132 miles northwest of Madrid in order “to celebrate at Salamanca”—the university town where this specific branch of early modern natural law theory was formulated—”the Spanish origins of liberal economics.”

He got his way: the MPS members dutifully got into their buses and, like medieval penitents following their shepherd, made their pilgrimage to the birthplace of free-market economics. According to one participant:

A particular memory was of a small group accompanying Hayek descending from the newer Gothic Cathedral down a circular stairs to the older Romanesque Cathedral and encountering a small group accompanying Lord Lionel Robbins ascending the stairway. Hayek and Robbins engaged in a conversation, and then the respective parties continued their tours of the cathedrals.

Clearly, whether he was in or out of office, Hayek’s voice held sway at the Society.

But still no word on Hayek and Viña.

Then earlier today I got a copy of this cache of documents, the originals of which are housed in the archives at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, where the papers of both Hayek and the MPS reside.

The documents don’t establish who came up with the idea—or initiated the effort—of holding the 1981 MPS meeting at Viña.  An announcement stamped December 1980 merely states:

At a recent General Meeting at the Hoover Institution, our Society decided to hold a Regional meeting in Chile in November of 1981. Preliminary arrangements have already been made for this Meeting with the cooperation of distinguished economists and business leaders of the country.

In regard to those arrangements our President Dr. Chiaki Nishiyama has approved the nomination of an Executive Committee for the Regional Meeting, made up as follows: Paulo Ayres (Brazil), Ramón Díaz (Uruguay), Alberto Benegas Lynch Jr. (Argentine[sic]), Carlos Cáceres (Chile) and Pedro Ilbáñez (Chile) as President; Hernán Cortes acting as the Committee’s Secretary.

Hayek’s name appears nowhere on this announcement—except on the letterhead (“Honorary President”). The announcement does add that “leading Members of Mont Pelerin are assiting [sic] us in organizing the meeting, deciding on the programme and inviting the main speakers and discussants.” But it doesn’t specify who those leading members are.

But then I found this follow-up announcement, dated June 1981:

Final arrangements for the event were approved at a recent meeting of the Executive Committee for the Regional meeting attended by our President Dr. Chiaki Nishiyama and our Honorary President, Professor Friedrich von Hayek.

So it seems that Hayek did attend the meeting that approved the “final arrangements” for the Viña conference. So much for the Hayek enthusiast who also had tweeted at me:

Whether Hayek formally voted at that meeting or not remains unclear. Given his interventions two years earlier in the Salamanca affair, however, it’s hard to conclude that he didn’t play a significant role. At a minimum, he didn’t veto the meeting place, which he could easily have done. And he most likely had a hand in those final arrangements, which included the adoption of a program and a tentative list of speakers.

The list is of interest in its own right. It’s a veritable who’s who of mid- to late-century conservatism and libertarianism: William F. Buckley (on “Freedom of Expression and Misinformation of the Western World”); George Gordon Tullock and George Stigler (on “Decentralization and Municipal Autonomy”); James Buchanan (“Direct or Indirect Taxation. New Approach to Taxation Policies”); Martin Anderson (“Social Security, A Road to Socialism?”), with Thomas Sowell as a discussant; Irving Kristol (“Ethics and Capitalism”); Milton Friedman (“Monetary System for a Free Society”); and Friedrich von Hayek (“Democracy, Limited or Unlimited?”)

In the end, several of these tentative’s,  including Hayek and Buckley, proved to be no’s. On the final agenda, however, some new names appeared. One of them was Gary Becker—with a “t” next to his name. Tentative.

In the last few months, I’ve been engaged in an ongoing battle with the libertarians about their lack of interest in workplace freedom. The operating assumption of those conversations seems to be that however indifferent libertarians are to coercion in the private sphere, when it comes to the state, they’re the real deal. Yet here we have some of the leading lights and influences of the movement —Tullock and Buchanan were listed as “confirmed” speakers; not sure yet what happened with Becker—convening in the very place where the Pinochet regime launched its bloody rule.

There is a large discourse on the left of intellectuals and activists trying to come to terms with their erstwhile support for Stalinism and revolutionary tyranny. Indeed, a great deal of 20th century intellectual history is driven by that discourse, with entire literatures devoted to the Webbs in Russia, Sontag in Vietnam, Foucault in Iran. Yet where is the comparable discourse on the right of intellectuals coming to terms with their (or their heroes’) support for Pinochet, Salazar, and the like? With the exception of John Gray, I can’t think of a single apostate from—or adherent of—the right who’s engaged in such a project of self-examination: not breast-beating or mea culpas, but really looking at the relationship between their ideas and their actions. Now there’s a road to serfdom that’s yet to be mapped.

I’ve now ordered a whole bunch of additional documents from the Hoover Institute.  I’ll keep you posted on what I find. In the meantime…

* The title of this blog comes from Tim Barker.

 

Update (12:15 pm)

Because sharp and smart readers like Kevin Vallier have misinterpreted this, I wanted to clarify something about my post.  In bringing up the Salamanca story, I was not trying to make the case that there was any connection between Hayek’s interest in Spanish Scholasticism and his support for Pinochet. I was trying to establish a very different point: despite not being the head of the Mont Pelerin Society, Hayek could and did intervene in decisions about where its regional meetings were held.  Sorry if that was unclear.

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